The embarrassment of cultural riches in the Triangle region of North Carolina had concertgoers having to choose between two of the three big “B’s” just steps away from each other on Duke University’s West Campus. While Duke Chapel was hosting part 1 of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Duke Performances and the Chamber Arts Society of Durham were featuring the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) in a program of two Beethoven quartets as well as a work-in-progress by Osvaldo Golijov.

Canada likes to claim this esteemed quartet as its own, although the artists are currently Ensemble-in-Residence at Stanford University and all members live and teach in the Bay Area. As has been done in the past for first violinist Scott St. John, tonight’s line-up had Mark Fewer stepping in as second violinist for new dad Geoff Nuttall, who was taking a paternity leave. Lesley Robertson, violist and one of the founding members, and Christopher Costanza, cellist and main spokesperson for the quartet, rounded out the foursome.

Although Beethoven’s Opus 18 set of six string quartets, published in 1801, are labeled as his “early” quartets, with these works of this favorite form he immediately sets himself apart from the common rabble. By the time we get to the fourth of this set, in Beethoven’s powerful key of C minor, he was looking in his rearview mirror while other composers were eating his dust. The opening movement immediately draws you into its dark and angry world with aggressive punctuations from the first violin. The players took a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach to tempi, which gave the performance a nicely controlled and non-frenetic pace. The players in the quartet are quite different from one another. Violist Robertson is rather austere and ramrod stiff in her demeanor while cellist Costanza constantly looks at his colleagues, checking for cues and hints of phrasing. This brings us to first violinist St. John, if nothing else because I heard so many comments about him, including the gentlemen behind me who said “there’s just no excuse for that kind of jumping around.” I find this exuberance refreshing and simply a manifestation of the player’s love and emotional involvement in the music. You can always close your eyes or just stay home and listen to a CD.

The meat between the “Beethoven sandwich,” as stated by Costanza, was the second performance of Kohelet, a new quartet by the Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. We have had the privilege to hear several of Golijov’s works in various concerts at Duke, and I have always been captivated by his unique and personal style. That is why I was so disappointed in the opening movement, which seemed to revert to an elemental version of the now clichéd style of minimalism with occasional outbursts in the first violin. As Costanza stated in his entertaining talk before the performance, the quartet hopes to convince the composer to extend the work beyond the two extant movements.

With the Opus 59 “Rasumovsky”quartets, Beethoven made it clear that the level of musicianship needed to play this music effectively was such that only professionals need apply, and even then many players would walk away scratching their heads. The opening movement of the first quartet of this set has the cello defiantly proclaiming a long arching theme while accompanied by precision eighth notes. The slow and mournful adagio movement has a beautifully expressive theme that just refuses to quit: Beethoven can be quite insistent. It is to the credit of these musicians that upon each return they continually invest a renewed vitality in the beauty of the idea. The finale, a theme found in a collection of Russian folk songs, is a romping, earthy ride and a great contrast to the previous introspection.

Classical concerts at Duke continue with pianist Simone Dinnerstein on January 20 and violinist Christian Tetzlaff on January 23. For details, see our calendar.